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Review: Steel Magnolias, Grand Opera House, York
STEEL Magnolias is best known for the 1989 movie adaptation, the mushy one with Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Shirley Maclaine, Darryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts.
It began life, however, in superior form as a play, written by Robert Harling as therapy for the loss of his sister to diabetes.
Performed previously in York by the Rowntree Players in 2000 and Stagecoach Youth Theatre York a year earlier, its latest incarnation combines the 1980s’ text for the all-female play with a star cast in the manner of the film, albeit more TV names than cinema goddesses.
Billed as “the funniest play ever to make you cry”, Harling’s bittersweet but sentimental comedy is directed by Olivier Award-winning West End director David Gilmore, who has assembled Denise Welch, Cherie Lunghi, Cheryl Campbell, Isla Blair, Kacey Ainsworth and Sadie Pickering to play six Louisiana women bonded by triumph and tragedy as they negotiate life’s cycle. Men are not seen, but they are disparaged in conversation, their nuisance factor symbolised by the loud blasts of a bird-scaring gun.
In a nutshell, this is a play as much about dyeing as dying because it is set in a hair salon run in a converted garage by the built-for-comfort and comfort-to-all Truvy (Welch), proud owner of the most successful shop in her little Southern rural town for 15 years.
Blonde to the max, she is testament to her own mantra of “There’s no such thing as natural beauty,” as she tells God-fearing new assistant Anelle (Ainsworth), who is initially quiet, permanently quirky, with a past she is slow/reluctant to reveal.
Played with impressive hairdressing skills by Welch and Ainsworth, Truvy and Anelle are overseeing the wedding-day preparations of spirited but physically fragile Shelby (Pickering), pink-loving diabetic daughter of ever-concerned matriarch M’Lynn (Blair).
In and out of the salon’s circle of gossip dip classy, football-club owning widow Clairee (Lunghi) and the eccentric loose cannon Ouiser (Campbell).
Over four slickly choreographed acts, this tissue-box drama of marriage and motherhood, love and loss is played skilfully with a proficient Southern drawl for each well-drawn performance. Individuals prosper within a strong ensemble structure, which is as it should be, and all the cast members shine brightly in their moments in the spotlight, especially Campbell’s grouchy Ouiser.
One form of brightness needs addressing, however: the silver on the salon chairs gives off a dazzling light that becomes distracting. Harling’s humour is sometimes as sweet as candy, other times more pleasingly tart, both extracted to the full by Gilmore’s company, whose pacing is exemplary. It is not a fault of this production, so much as the writing, that the play would benefit from more of the steel in the title to go with the magnolias. It takes Blair’s moving climactic speech for the emotional tug of the story to really pull at the heart strings.
• Steel Magnolias, David Ian Productions, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or atgtickets.com/york